To Set Our House In Order by Margaret Laurence, 1970
The magic trick:
Driving the story with a narrative device that also shows itself to be the theme
I’ve paired these Margaret Laurence stories this week with a batch from Alice Munro. Which makes sense. They were friends, after all. But as stories themselves, I find that they have more in common with the work of Maeve Brennan, recreating every detail of domestic life with meticulous detail. It’s remarkable how small and rich, simultaneously, a story’s world can be.
Anyway, “To Set Our House In Order” masterfully uses the protagonist’s youthful point of view in multiple ways. Vanessa is surrounded by adults. She wants to be included in their world. She wants to know the things they know and be a part of the jokes they share. And she is remarkably smart and perceptive for a 10-year-old. But of course she’s still only a 10-year-old.
So we have that push-and-pull between what she wants to know and what the adults in the story want her to know. We also get the push-and-pull – and this is more subtly done – between what the Vanessa narrating the story knows and what Vanessa the character in the story knows. On top of all that, we get the push-and-pull between what Vanessa narrates for us and the glimpses of truth beyond her storytelling we see in things the adults say that perhaps she didn’t then understand.
In summary, that’s a whole lot of push-and-pull. And it is that dynamic that drives the story. The especially cool thing here is that as the story winds up, you realize that Vanessa’s uneasy quest to assemble a more adult understanding of the world isn’t just a narrative device driving the plot, it’s in fact the theme of the piece.
And that’s quite a trick on Laurence’s part.
“Where’s her royal highness, kiddo?” she enquired.
“In her room,” I said. “She’s reading the catalogue from Robinson & Cleaver.”
“Good Glory, not again?” Aunt Edna cried. “The last time she ordered three linen tea-cloths and two dozen serviettes. It came to fourteen dollars. Your mother was absolutely frantic. I guess I shouldn’t be saying this.”
“I knew anyway,” I assured her. “She was at the lace handerchiefs section when I took up her coffee.”
“Let’s hope she stays there. Heaven forbid she should get onto the banqueting cloths. Well, at least she believes the Irish are good for two things – manual labor and linen-making. She’s never forgotten Father used to be a blacksmith, before he got the hardware store. Can you beat it? I wish it didn’t bother Beth.”
“Does it?” I asked, and immediately realised this was a wrong move, for Aunt Edna was suddenly scruitinizing me.
“We’re making you grow up before your time,” she said. “Don’t pay any attention to me, Nessa. I must’ve got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.”
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